Unemployment Becomes Political Fodder

When voters are worried, they are open to solutions that would be rejected in calmer days.

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In my suburban county, we are heavily taxed. In good times, that's okay. It is our choice. We live in a wealthy county, and we take pride and comfort in the value of our real estate, which is due in no small part to low crime, good schools, nice flowers and trees along the highways, and other amenities.

Then come the tough times. Unemployment rises. The value of our property dips. Tax revenues fall. [Read more about unemployment.]

But we are Americans. We exercise our constitutional right to gripe and get on with the business of making do.

Public employees have surrendered promised wage hikes, accepted cuts in retirement benefits, and faced furloughs. The schools have grown more crowded, and the number of students in many classrooms has soared. To encourage development, we've relaxed zoning rules. Speeding cameras are everywhere, as much to bring in revenue as to make the streets safer.

Ideologues, of Left and Right, seek to take advantage of hard times. The wise guys know that when voters are worried, they are open to solutions that would be rejected in calmer days.

In this last election, the liberals put a proposal on the ballot to charge folks for ambulance rides. Their target was not the sick and injured, but the big health insurance companies: if you could not charge the ride to your insurance, you were exempted from the fee. The rest of us, seeing the slippery slope and not liking the prospect of paramedics demanding a deductible before taking a patient to the ER, thought this was a bad idea, and it was defeated.

Our local conservatives, meanwhile, are using today's difficulties to turn the public against unions.

The Right must be acting from habit because beating up unions is no true sport. Global economic forces, union greed and bungling, corporate hostility, and right-wing opposition have decimated the labor movement in America. It is no longer big enough to blame for much of anything.

The percentage of U.S. workers who belong to unions has dropped from about 34 percent at its postwar height to 12 percent today. In the private sector, membership is down to 7 million workers, or about 7 percent of the American workforce, making unions irrelevant in many states. For young people, unions are as much an anachronism as a typewriter or a rotary-dialed telephone. Less than 5 percent of workers under 24 belong to a union.

The unions still have a faint heartbeat in the public sector, where less than two out of five municipal workers—policemen, firefighters, teachers, and clerks—still belong to a union. (Disclosure: My wife is among them.) Because they act collectively, their wages and benefits are higher than in jurisdictions where employees don't have equal clout. This irks conservatives, who cannot sleep at night knowing there are cops and firemen who can still afford to send their kids to college.

The national debate is filled, these days, with calls to slash government work forces, implement furloughs and cap pay—from the Department of Defense on down to local government. Last week's TSA "scandal" was fueled, in part, by hostility to federal workers and the greed of private security firms. It won't be long before the Veterans Administration is identified as a socialist ploy—with its government hospitals, doctors, and nurses—and warriors are instead awarded "vouchers" for the care of their wounds. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on air safety.]

Here in our suburban county, we were cheered the other day when the Washington Post carried the news that our schools had somehow overcome the burden of their lazy, overpaid union teachers and won a Malcolm Baldrige award for excellence—the latest honor for our nationally-recognized, top-notch school system. This is no small achievement. Baldrige was a member of Ronald Reagan's cabinet, and the award is given to elite organizations in the public and private sector that demonstrate innovation, competition, and productivity.

A few days later, failing to see the connection between pay and performance (which of course is universally recognized throughout the private sector) the Post published an editorial calling for lower salaries and benefits and an end to collective bargaining for teachers, police, firefighters, and other county employees.

It brought to mind the Aesop's Fable:

A cottager and his wife had a Hen that laid a golden egg every day. They supposed that the Hen must contain a great lump of gold in its inside, and in order to get the gold they killed it….The foolish pair, thus hoping to become rich all at once, deprived themselves of the gain of which they were assured day by day.